Summer is the season of Queen Susan Levine, one of Fire Island’s most prolific and respected DJ’s. But on top of the several nights a week she spins at Cherrys and a few special gigs elsewhere on the Island, Susan’s got gigs in Manhattan, a stint with a Melissa Etheridge Cruise to prepare for, an upscale dog apparel boutique to run, and a personal life to make room for. Now let’s throw this exclusive Thotyssey interview into the mix!
Thotyssey: Hi Susan, are you minding the store right now?
Susan Levine: Yes!
Okay, we’ll talk about your boutique in a bit. Let’s get right into you! Where are you from?
I was born in Brighton Beach, but I grew up on Long Island.
Before you started DJing–and I know you came to that later than people think, we’ll get to that!–what was your earlier “career path?”
I graduated from the University of Maryland College Park with a degree in film. After a semester of grad school for film, I got a job at the School of Visual Arts in NYC as the Film Production Manger. Two years later, I was promoted to the Director of Film, Video and Audio Visual Production. So at 24, I had a crazy executive position that was always held by a man in his 40’s. I did that for about four years. [Then I] worked for SVA for a summer in Ireland, doing the production for an International film program.
After SVA, I worked on TV commercials for many years as a production coordinator. I took a couple of summers off and went to DJ in Ptown at the Pied. That is when I first became a DJ. That is the simple story of how I became a DJ. It is actually more interesting than that, but too long to write.
How did you gravitate from P-Town to circuit parties?
I DJed Ptown for a couple of seasons and then did not DJ for years. I always loved to give parties, and used to give notorious apartment parties back in the day when I lived in the city: usually New Year’s Eve and my birthday.
About 12 years ago, I started doing birthday parties again. First one was in a friend’s backyard, and 150 women showed up. It was fun, but the clean-up was a nightmare!
The next year, I moved it to the Ice Palace, with the caveat that they let me do a guest DJ spot. Last time I DJed it was vinyl, and I got rid of all my thousands of albums. So I did it on CD, and I was technically awful, but my music rocked.
A few months later, a woman approached me on the beach and said she heard I could get hundreds of women to show up to a party (true), and would I like to produce a women’s party at Therapy in the city? Therapy wanted to do a girls party. So “Girls In Therapy” was born. We could not afford a DJ, so I DJed. We would do it monthly, and get about 250 women.
Aw, I miss Crobar!
Me too, and oh my God, as a new DJ, what a trip to spin! As the manager walked me to the booth, he said “DJ’s would kill to spin the main floor here.” It was awesome!
And when did you become Queen Levine of Fire Island?
A couple of months later, I was out at Bunk House on Long Island, and started talking to the owner David, who was also the owner of Cherrys. I told him about the parties and Crobar, and he asked me if I would like to be the resident at Cherrys. I was already sharing a rental on Fire Island in the Grove with friends, so I had a place to stay. I just had to learn how to really DJ [laughs].
That summer, I also became the resident at Sunsets On The Bay in the Grove after he fired that DJ. The night he fired the DJ, I actually had to spin both bars simultaneously. At Cherrys I kept putting on my mixes, and Sunsets I had to do a drag show. I think it was Peppermint. Only on Fire Island can you run between two clubs and DJ!
Do you remember Sunsets? It was the late night dirty druggie bar [laughs]. I miss that place!
I was never there, but I heard of it!
My first summer at Cherrys was 2006. Sunsets is a legend, and I was the last Sunsets DJ. I started DJing in the Pines either 2007 or 2008, at Sip N Twirl every Thursday and some Fridays. I did that for six seasons, and Cherrys.
In 2014, I jumped over to the Pines and started doing Low Tea at the Blue Whale and Pavilion. Mostly Low Tea. I actually have turned down a Low Tea residency last summer, and this summer I am hoping that will change.
Are crowds on Fire Island a little less crazy-behaving then they were 10 years ago? I don’t think the younger generation can keep up!
It is different now, for two reasons. One: People don’t party the way they used to. Sunsets would sometimes close the doors and stay open after 4. Now we are lucky if we can keep a crowd until 2AM. There is very little late night crowd anymore. I always got a hit of the late night partiers.
Two: Now Cherry Grove has become a tourist destination. It is the same as the gay bars in the city; the horrible and rude bachelorettes come out in droves. I call the 9pm boat the Pocketbook Boat. The girls come off with pocketbooks and insensible heels, and are straight. Most lesbians don’t carry a pocketbook [laughs].
Cherrys was on the Kardashians two years ago, and won from Newsday the “Coolest Place” to have fun on Long Island… hence the tourists. The straights come over on the boats every Friday and Saturday and leave on the last boat. Totally different crowd. Not that the gays are not there, but there are so many straights, and we get a bunch of bachelorette parties each night in their silly themed costumes. The Pines is not like this.
But the Grove is still fun though, right?
Yes, Cherrys is a fabulous place for anyone gay or straight. It is my all-time favorite place to DJ. You asked me about how the nightlife has changed, and like everything else, things change or evolve with time… especially nightlife.
The Grove always has something fun. Lots of drag shows and good clubs, and you don’t have to drive when you are on the Island.
You’ve worked with many drag queens in NYC. Are there any general ways that queens have changed as performers and collaborators over the years?
I started seeing a change with the younger drags years ago.The younger ones didn’t just get up in a dress and sing a ballad. I hate that anyway: boring! They started to do the mashes with the comedy. They started moving more, and the costumes got better. I have to wonder if that has to do with the fact that stores stopped finding men buying dresses odd.
Speaking of drag queens, you’ll be DJing the Stonewall Invasion of Yuhua Hamasaki on Sunday, May 15th. You’ll also be DJing at Stonewall again on May 21st, and you’re generally spinning there every first and third Saturday of each month. Isn’t it an exciting time to be part of the Stonewall family? The bar was recently landmarked, and now President Obama has commissioned the area as a national monument!
I love that I get to spin at Stonewall. I have been there for awhile now. It is like spinning in a fabulous gay museum. And the staff there is awesome. It is so cool, the national monument status. Just means more tourists from around the country and world will stop in. We won’t lose Stonewall as a result, like many other bars that are shuttering.
I always say how lucky I am that I get to spin in the most famous and historic gay bar in the world. I love spinning the dance party upstairs, it is always a blast, and people come to dance!.
But I do miss the big dance floors like Splash and CroBar. I am one of the few women that had an actual residency at Splash, for two years. And Pacha, and Mansion, and the old Copa. Big dance floors. DJ’ed them all.
Sad loses all! Before you do Yuhua’s Invasion at Stonewall though, Saturday you’ll be spinning at Boxers HK, where you are every second Saturday of the month. Do you think Boxers’ patrons really care about sports, or do they just want to ogle the hot bartenders and players on the screen?
Both [laughs]. Some dance, but they appreciate good music. Oh, and don’t forget the food. And the staff at Boxers is great. They are very appreciative of the type of music i bring. Yes, they and the crowd do stare at the screens, but you get those that dance. But it definitely isn’t a dance club, per se.
So, what song or artist do you predict you’ll be playing the hell out of this summer?
That’s a tough one. I am not sure I have heard it yet.
Not a ton yet, but definitely Queen B. And Rihanna has new music. I am thinking that the new Justin Timberlake is going to be a big hit this summer. Heard it this morning. My favorite remixer is Barry Harris of Thundepuss fame. He is tossing out awesome high energy remixes. Division 4 is doing some great remixes.
Are you a remixer, by the way?
Not yet. Maybe someday. Basically because I am getting tired of most of the new remixes done in a more down-tempo house beat. I like my dance floors to have upbeat energy. Which is why I like remixers like Barry Harris and DJ Grind, and Toy Armada.
What’s the best way for a DJ to keep up with music trends, new artists, etc.?
There are terrific music blogs out there. I have a few blogs I check. Always Top 10 iTunes downloads, and top 100 Billboard, and other dance charts.
Mostly I listen to the music. If it moves me, I know it will move the dance floor. I love all kinds of music, which is why I DJ. I love turning people on to music. Like the first time I heard Robin Schulz: Prayer In C. It got into my head. I dropped it on the dance floor, and the crowd totally vibed it, and a couple months later it was all over the radio. Like Jesse Glynne: Hold My Hand.
But I also love when a producer takes a classic or throwback track and remixes it. You have heard me spin! I love throwing surprises in, like a cool new remix of something old. Totally unexpected. It works on the crowds’ emotions. There are a few guys out there doing crazy throwbacks, like Julian Marsh. He actually does these amazing rock remixes. Or Joel Dickenson: he comes up with some wild old tracks remixed.
Requests for the DJ: I know most DJ’s hate them, but a few are okay with them. Where do you stand on requests?
That just made me laugh out loud! How do I answer this? It depends. If I am DJing a fierce dance party, and the crowd is getting into what I am doing, then no requests, although I will listen to the “suggestion.” If I can fit it in and it won’t ruin my set, I might indulge them. Otherwise, I am famous for “Talk to the hand.”
I actually like to hear what the crowd wants, even if I won’t play it, because sometimes it turns me on to new music. But it is mostly annoying, and most requests are totally inappropriate.
Also, if I have a serious dance party going on, like a Saturday at Cherrys, I am taking the crowd on a journey, and sometimes it is distracting and makes me lose my train of thought. My job is to keep the crowd having fun so the bar makes money.
What’s the best thing about working on Fire Island, as a DJ?
I get to look at the water and a gorgeous sunset when I am spinning. The dance crowds are great because they actually come to dance, as opposed to DJing in a bar and trying to make something happen!
The holiday weekends are insane and big out there. And there is great dance floor energy. I love nothing better than a crowd that wants to dance, and I will play them the most amazing dance music. Something for everyone.
Cherrys is a tough place to spin for a DJ, and not all can do it. The demographic of the crowd is so diverse: you have gay and straight, men and women, young and old, and every ethnicity at once, like Stonewall.
Sounds like heaven! Do you generally get to chill out and have drinks/relax out there, or is all business?
I do both. I love Cherry Grove and the community, and have summered out there for years. It is a special place.
But when I am in the booth, it is all business–but pleasurable business that I am passionate about. Music is my passion, and I consider myself lucky that I get to work at something I feel passionate about.
And the staff at Cherrys is like family. Many of us have been there a long time. Fire Island in general is such a beautiful place. And it is so close; just a beautiful ferry ride away.
No,I can’t be there for Bianca. Makes me sad. Bianca and I worked many a Friday night together at Cherrys. Her wit is brilliant, always was. She is so talented, and deserves her fame. She used to get me good in the booth with her quick wit. I miss working with her. But I get Burner and Ginger Snap and Busted.
Oh, by the way… what’s up with those fucking deer on the Island, that just stare at you and don’t run away? Do you find them creepy or cute?
Neither creepy nor cute, but more cute than creepy. They are mostly annoying. I, of course, like most community members, have my funny deer stories. You either love them or hate them, and of course have to fence your garden. I find the baby Bambi’s are cute. I would always run into at least one on my 4:00 AM jaunt from the Pines to the Grove after DJing a night at Sip. Usually, walking really loud on the boardwalk will get them to jump out of the way. Usually. Sometimes there is a face-off
Let’s look ahead for the summer. Besides your Friday and Sunday nights (and occasional Saturdays) at Cherrys, you’ll be spinning for (at least) four special events. Can you just briefly describe them for us? I’ll list them:
1) Women’s Pride at the Pines, June 11th (Whyte Hall).
Whyte Hall in The Pines is the fabulous community center and event space.
WPP is a fabulous Women’s Benefit Dance. Some men do come, because it is fun and a benefit. They had over 500 attend last year, and raised way over $100,000 for Hetrick Martin. This year, they added Ali Fornay into the mix. There is always some type of live entertainment. Last year was Joi Cardwell. This year it is France Joli. Joi I had the pleasure of working with each other the first time I headlined the Women’s Pier Dance in NYC for Pride. France Joli I haved DJed for many times, at Cherrys and also at Bunk House.
2) The Invasion of the Pines, July 4th (starting at Cherrys).
Do you understand the history of the Invasion? It started because a drag queen went over to the Pines some 30 plus years ago, and wouldn’t be served because she was in drag. She went back to the Grove and told some friends. Basically, they all got dressed in drag, got a water taxi, and decided to invade the Pines in drag. They did not know what kind of reception they would get, booed or cheered. It was one of the club owners that denied her service. Well, the boys of the Pines cheered when they came, and now it is a celebration.
Anyone can participate in the Invasion. They bring a special ferry over, and it fills up. [The party] starts in the Grove up at the Ice Palace, where they all get ready. Then they parade through town, past all the businesses. The last few years, I have worked the dock, introducing them to the Cherrys crowd from the dock. Burner and I did it together last year. Mostly, I wrangled the drags to stand on the dock where the Cherrys crowd can see them, and she introduced and insulted them.
3) Miss Cherrys, August 7th.
Miss Cherrys gets better every year. I have been doing it for ten years now. The level of talent is crazy. They start with a gown walk-through. Then there is a number they have to do, and they have to answer questions. Most of the performances are over the top productions, with back up dancers and such.
4) Candyland, September 24th at Cherrys.
They decorate the whole club with candy. It’s for one of the owner’s birthday.
This is the first Melissa Etheridge cruise. I have DJed for Olivia Cruises, which is a women’s travel company. Melissa is a one-up. I am excited! She will be on the boat the whole cruise, and will perform, as well as a huge lineup of other entertainment. Joan Jett and The Blackhearts are playing on board when the boat is docked in Key West.
Have you ever met Melissa before?
No, never met her. Now I will! I am also looking forward to DJing with Tracy Young. I have met her, but we have never had the pleasure to DJ something together. She would usually guest at Splash on a night I wasn’t working.
Speaking of Splash! Is it sometimes difficult to navigate the gay nightlife world as a DJ without being a 22 year-old twink?
[Laughs] The loaded question! It is difficult to compete, first of all, being a female DJ, second being an older DJ. But I got my skills, and I can out-spin most of the 22 year-old twinks that let the laptop mix their music on Synch. There are jobs I will not get, and it is because I am not a twink. But I have awesome gigs. Gigs most of those twinks would kill for.
I did not start this at a young age. I was already an older DJ when I started. There are jobs I don’t get on the girls scene because I am not 22; but I can out-spin them, too. Age is not a skill set. I spin to a very young crowd at Stonewall. They totally get me. It is about the music, not what I look like. And my music is as current as it comes.
Yaaaaas! And, how much does it piss you off when reality stars suddenly become “celebrity DJs,” like Paris Hilton and Caitlyn Jenner? I remember at one point even Mary Kay Letourneau and her little husband were getting in on that racket. Doesn’t that undermine what a real DJ does?
I didn’t want to mention that. I hate that! Of course it undermines our skill set. I can actually mix. I use a mixer with my computer. No Synch for me. Most (I am sure not all) of those celebrity DJ’s have there music programmed for them. They usually have someone working with them that do the mix. Hey, more power to them, they are making big bucks. But I will never make their money. I don’t have their celebrity, and their celebrity brings a crowd.
I have noticed it on the girls scene, too. Lately all the big DJ events are using “celesbians” to DJ. They’re from The L Word, or Orange Is The New Black. I have never heard Daniela Sea or Katherine Moening or Ruby Rose, so I can’t comment on their DJ skills. I would hope they are great DJ’s, and have skills. Look, Ruby Rose got a lot of women to show up at TEAZE, the Women’s Pride pier dance last year. I have headlined it four times. It always gets thousands, but not the crowd the boys’ pier dance gets. Women were just not getting what an amazing event the pier dance was, but because it was early, the younger crowd was going to the afterparties, not understanding they were missing the best event for women of Pride. If Ruby’s celebrity got them there, I think that is great for HOP. It should be as crowded as the men’s dance.
Seems like it might be a rough transitional period for career DJs in general!
[Laughs] Don’t make me sound bitter, because I am not! I have gotten to spin in some amazing big clubs, and great circuit parties. The computer has made DJing more accessible to whoever wants to be a DJ, and there are tons of music on the Internet. Free music. You don’t have to make a crazy investment in vinyl or CD’s. I used to have thousands of records!
I think a lot of professional DJ’s are feeling that frustration. And there are
so few big dance clubs. if you don’t produce, it is hard to make the big bucks. But I think some of the older producers are feeling it too, because computer programs have made producing accessible to the masses as well. If you can use the program, you can produce. You don’t need to rent a studio.
But on the upside, it gives some very talented people a chance to produce where they had no opportunity before. With the music blogs, an unknown can get their music heard if they are good. Downside is, there are a lot of mediocre remixes out there, too, that I have to sift through to find the gems.
Tell me about FETCH, the upscale boutique of dog supplies and apparel that you co-own with a business partner in Huntington, Long Island.
We live in a world where people are comfortable with humanizing their dogs, and they are considered a family member. FETCH is not a pet store, it is actually a gorgeous Dog Boutique. We don’t sell food or medicinals, or do grooming. We sell a beautiful collection of dog apparel and accessories you will not find in most pet stores. We won Best Of Long Island “Best Pet Clothing Store,” and we truly are.
People love to spoil their pets, so FETCH fills that need. Even though the clothes are for dogs, we do get the random customer that buys clothing for their cats [laughs].
Can dog outfits fit on cats?
Of course! Because they have four legs, just like a dog!
The stores tag line is “A Luxurious Lifestyle Boutique for Dogs, Offering Inspired Products for the Ultimate Dog Lover.” Having looked at stores from Montauk to NYC, we didn’t find a true boutique for dogs. We found stores with nice merchandise, but they were pet stores, not an apparel driven-boutique. And we have the most amazing dog treats. We don’t sell food, but we sell a lot of locally-sourced small dog bakery dog treats, made here on Long Island.
Sounds like these dogs are living better than I am!
Between DJing, and the store, and your personal life and everything else, are you having troubles finding breathing room these days?
[Laughs] ya think!? I work seven days a week here [at the store], and DJ on weekends.
I live on the beautiful North Shore of Long Island. I try and get up a little early in the morning and go do something nice. There are so many great beaches and harbor towns. I am looking forward to kayaking in the morning when the weather gets nicer.
Okay, last question: If you were appointed Global Ambassador of All Deejays, what would be the first law you would try to get passed to benefit your DJ community?
I am coming up blank on this one. All I can think of is, sound equipment that works well. You’d be surprised!
I’m sure the DJs of the world concur! Thanks so much Susan, and have a great summer!
DJ Susan Levine will spin at Boxers HK on Saturday, May 14th (and every second Saturday), and at Stonewall for Yuhua Hamasaki’s Invasion on May 15th. She’ll DJ again at Stonewall for the upstairs party on May 21st (and most first and third Saturdays).
On Cherry Grove in Fire Island beginning Memorial Day weekend, Susan Levine will DJ at Cherrys Friday and Sunday nights, and selected Saturday nights. Also at Cherrys, she’ll spin for the Invasion of the Pines on July 4th, the Miss Cherrys pageant on August 7th and the Candyland party on September 24th. On the Pines, she’ll be the DJ for the Women’s Pride in the pines event on June 11th.
Late in October, Susan will be DJing for the Melisa Etheridge cruise. Otherwise, you can find her at her dog boutique FETCH in Huntington, Long Island.